Healing an Injured Phrase


From Rabbi Avi Shafran, Am Echad Resources

“One of the 613 Mitzvot is ‘Tikkun Olam,’ to heal or repair the world,” declares the Social Action Committee of a Massachusetts temple. The assertion is characteristic of the widespread ignorance these days about Jewish basics, not to mention the misrepresentation of the term tikkun olam.

There are indeed 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah, but none of them is tikkun olam – a phrase that, of late, is as frequently invoked (Google reports 226,000 references) as it is erroneously defined.

The term has its roots in the Mishna, the earliest Talmudic source-material, where it is employed as the philosophical principle behind a number of rabbinic enactments intended to avoid social problems. For example, the institution of a legal mechanism that can circumvent the sabbatical year’s automatic cancellation of debts is justified by the concept of tikkun olam. As is the requirement that divorce documents include the signatures of the witnesses. Similarly, whenever tikkun olam is invoked by the Talmud, it refers to actions taken by rabbinic authorities to address communal concerns.

The phrase also has an eschatological meaning, as in “litakein olam bi’mal’chut Sha-dai” (“to repair the world through the kingdom of G-d”) clause in the Aleinu declaration recited at the end of every Jewish prayer service. There it refers to the end-point of human history, when idolatries will disappear from earth and “every knee will bend to You” and all nations “will give honor to the glory of Your name.”

And then there is tikkun olam’s meaning in Jewish mystical literature, where it is used to refer to the cosmically redemptive power of personal actions, in particular the performance of mitzvot, both ethical and ritual.

In recent years, though, the term has been widely employed by a number of Jewish groups and individuals in a novel way, made to mean the embrace of any of a variety of social, political or environmental causes – including, as one, tikkunolam.com, asserts, arms control, reproductive rights and campaign reform. Gay and lesbian rights are another item on that group’s list, although the only quote from Leviticus cited is “Love thy neighbor as yourself.” (Other pertinent verses in that book seem to have been overlooked.)

Redefinition of time-honored Jewish words and concepts, unfortunately, is nothing new. “Torah” and “mitzvah” and “halacha” (Jewish religious law) and “observance” have all fallen victim to Jewish Newspeak. But there is a particular irony to the trendy twisting of tikkun olam to refer to the issue du jour of the politically progressive.

It stems from yet another legitimate employment of the term, as cited by Maimonides in his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah (or Yad Hachazaka).

Near the end of that 14-volume compendium of halacha, the revered 12th century Jewish luminary included several chapters of laws concerning Jewish kings. In the final law of the third chapter of that section, he writes:

“[In] any case where someone takes human lives without clear proof [of a capital offense] or the issuance of a warning, or even on the strength of a single witness [as two are required in a Jewish court], or where a person hates someone and kills him [seemingly] by accident, a king is permitted to execute [the unjustified taker of life] in order to repair the world [“li’taken ha’olam”] according to the needs of the time… to strike fear and shatter the strength [literally, “break the hand”] of the world’s perpetrators of evil.”

And so, Maimonides informs us, there is yet another meaning to tikkun olam, the authorization of a nation’s leader to do whatever is necessary, “according to the needs of the time” – even suspend the ordinary rules of evidence in capital cases – to preserve the security of his society from those who seek to disrupt it.

No Jewish king exists today but, still – in the spirit of liberal-mindedness – we might engage in a little “expansion of definition” ourselves and consider how the Maimonidean concept of tikkun olam might pertain to our own society, leaders and times.

Reasonably, it would seem to advocate the right, in fact the responsibility, of the chief executive of a country threatened by murderous elements to take strong and unusual action to undermine those enemies of civilized society – even if some personal rights may be compromised in the process.

So, interestingly, the concept of tikkun olam would seem to argue most eloquently today for things like, say, the imprisonment of enemy combatants, secret wiretaps and surveillance of citizens.

It might not please those who enjoy waving tikkun olam like a flag, but the concept, accurately applied, would seem to more heartily support the Patriot Act than a ban on Alaskan oil drilling.

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9 years 9 months ago

Rabbi Shafran is correct. Tikkun Olam is not in and of itself a mitzvah. The liberal use of “tikkun olam” can be reduced to the pursuit of justice instead. I looked up the section on Luria’s use of the phrase tikkun in Scholem and found the interesting statements that Luria finds the most important expression of tikkun olam to be prayer, kavanah, and the unification of the name of G-d. That said, DovBear is 100% right.

9 years 10 months ago

with all the comments here on chaim cohen’s post and the nature of what rabbi shafran wrote about, i’m really surprised no one picked up on one particularly ironic phrase: “all branches of Judaism believe themselves to be the carrier of the true traditions of our forefathers.”

i wholeheartedly respect the pride our fellow jews have for upholding the traditions of their forefathers. we all want to be in sync with what came before and this is part of what makes klal yisrael so unique – the spiritual magnet implanted within each neshama that yearns to be connected just won’t… Read more »

9 years 10 months ago

“So when you hear someone refer to a cheeseburger or a ham sandwich as “treyf”, do you rebuke them for redefining treyfah?”

No, but I probably should, considering how few people seem to know the origin of the word. “Not kosher” suffices just fine.


9 years 10 months ago

Shafran’s objection is one of semantics. Perhaps he is right that saving the enviroment is not a “tikun olam” in the original sense, but so what? That’s not an argument against saving the enviroment. It’s just an argument for calling it something else, which is a very trivial argument indeed.

Furthermore, where is his argument against the Kabbalists of Sefad? According to the Mishna and the bit of Maimonides he cites tikun olam means to protect the world from evil, but the Kabbalists took it to mean imbuing the world with holiness. These aren’t the same thing.

Seth Gordon
9 years 10 months ago

[DMZ:] Improving the world is indeed a wonderful Kiddush Hashem. Distorting traditional Jewish thought and history (which is what casually redefining Tikkun Olam is) is not.

So when you hear someone refer to a cheeseburger or a ham sandwich as “treyf”, do you rebuke them for redefining treyfah?

9 years 10 months ago

“Indeed, the problem was not that they thought they held absolute truth – it was that their absolute truths had no room for anyone else. This is, of course, diametrically opposed to any Jewish thought I’m aware of, which accepts the presence of non-Jews in this world as almost necessity.”

Very well put!

9 years 10 months ago

“Can we agree that improving the human condition while “waving Tikkun Olam like a flag” is in fact a wonderful kiddush hashem?”

Improving the world is indeed a wonderful Kiddush Hashem. Distorting traditional Jewish thought and history (which is what casually redefining Tikkun Olam is) is not. Debbie’s really brings this point out. This isn’t an either-or situation – just find a new phrase for it.

“While true that absolute truth is a credo of many religions and movements, I ask you to look at the results of this belief system (e.g. the Crusades, Nazis and of late the Taliban and… Read more »

9 years 10 months ago

Amen, Debbie – good post.

Bob Miller
9 years 10 months ago

It’s not our duty to tolerate fiction dressed up as truth. Some healthy intolerance has kept Judaism from being swept away altogether by inauthentic movements that were popular in their time. The decay of our general Jewish society caused by such movements, whether these meant well or not, is all around us. We should be at least as judgmental about activists who purport to fix society as we are about car mechanics and plumbers.

9 years 10 months ago

Rabbi Shafran fails to remember two things (aside from the rather obvious details about George Bush being neither Jewish nor a king.)

First, a Jewish King was given this great power, because he was imagined to be the Pure and Humble Servant of God. His presumed goodness, and loyalty to the Torah was meant to function as a check on his power. An American president is entitled to no such presumption of Goodness, which is why the Founders imposed serious checks on his power. Second, as the Book of Kings dramitically demonstrates the king who is also a Pure and Humble… Read more »

9 years 10 months ago

I believe that Chaim is not angry about this post but already came with a bias that people who are “to the right” are fanatics and are automatically exclusionary.

The post was only pointing out the “traditional” definition of Tikkun Olam according to the sages of the Talmud, the author of the Aleinu prayer, and Maimonides (all of whom I highly doubt were unqualified individuals with an agenda).

Tikkun Olam was a great kiddush Hashem when it was combined with the mitzvah of Tzedaka. But when you take the term and twist it to be used for… Read more »

9 years 10 months ago

So, Chaim, you do believe there are movements in Judaism that don’t speak the truth, and ‘eilu v’eilu’ doesn’t apply to them. Ipso facto, according to you, you are intolerant. Or are you the sole decider of who is intolerant? By the way, when is the next crusade being led by those violent, intolerant Orthodox Jews? I’m getting bored here in my office.

Chaim Cohen
9 years 10 months ago

Leapa: My point in suggesting Rabbi Shafran engages in sophistry is similar to yours. If Tikkun Olam is not a basic tenet of our religion but has instead been adopted by those wishing to cloak their mission in the garb of the Torah, than Shafran is as guilty as they are. Indeed, he and his ilk (yup, that word again) do so with a regularity. Many of their proclamations are issued claiming divine origin when they are in fact weak or distorted interpretations of custom by unqualified individuals merely interested in the perpetuation of their self-interests.… Read more »

9 years 10 months ago

I guess Chaim Cohen believes we must ALL believe in pluralism. But, you know what? No one actually believes in pluralism, at least in my experience. Every Jewish movement takes the opportunity to beat down on everyone not like them. I mean, it’s obvious from the tone of his very post that he dislikes people of R’ Shafran’s “ilk”. What happened to love and tolerance?


9 years 10 months ago

Come to think of it “ailu v’ailu divrei elokim chaim” is another injured phrase in need of healing. The fact that there can be many valid interpretations does not mean that ALL interpretations are valid.

9 years 10 months ago

[Update: I had a comment here which responded somewhat sharply to my misunderstanding of Seth’s point. My apologies to Seth and to readers, as I completely misunderstood — not that he was being sarcastic, but what it was that he was being sarcastic about.]

Seth Gordon
9 years 10 months ago

Rabbi Shafran appears to be saying, in short, that (a) Reform Jews do not understand technical terms used in the Oral Law, and (b) the Torah grants more power to a Jewish king than the legislatures and judiciaries of many contemporary countries will grant to their own chief executives.

I look forward to the rabbi’s next learned treatise explaining that (a) the Pope is Catholic, and (b) the sun rises in the east.

Chaim Baker
9 years 10 months ago

I’m curious about something. Chaim Cohen calls for tolerance on the part of Rabbi Shafran.
Personally, I didn’t see anything particularly non-tolerant in the Rabbi’s article.
However, I’ve always wondered. Is it just me, or does anyone else find the term ‘his ilk’
somewhat less than tolerant, perhaps even, offensive?

9 years 10 months ago

“Chaim Cohen”, (no, I don’t believe that your real name), what exactly is wrong with believing what you believe is the truth. Every religion believes they have the truth. I just depends what you want to do to everyone else that defines tolerance. Just answer one question, do you believe messianic Jews deserve your tolerance as ‘elu v’elu’ or not, and why.

9 years 10 months ago

Mr. Cohen:
Rabbi Shafran makes the entirely legitimate point that, as in most Talmudic, scriptural and indeed Jewish phraseology, there is a precise and definable meeting to specific phrases.
Feel-good pop psychology has its’ place, perhaps in Hollywood or among the leisure classes.
However, exposing the intellectual hijacking of technical terms is not sophistry. It is the advance of truth and education.
The route to peace and harmony is the closeness which comes from common definitions – of words and ultimately of right and wrong.
We can tolerate well intentioned people who cannot accept the yoke of a Jewish lifestyle more easily than conscious… Read more »

Steve Brizel
9 years 10 months ago

I disagree with R Cohen. No, Tikun Olam is refered to in no less than a statement of faith than the
Aleinu prayer which is said daily and in as august a prayer as the Mussaf of Rosh HaShanah to state
that our goal in observing all of the mitzvos is to magnify G-d’s presence as the King of the world.
However, I think that it is wrong to state that the Torah reflects either a perspective that is either exclusively liberal or
conservative. One can find arguments pro and con in Dinei Shmitah vYovel and much of Seder Nezikin ranging… Read more »

Chaim Cohen
9 years 10 months ago

Rabbi Shafran, in his convenient and self-serving interpretation of Tikkun Olam, engages in the same sophistry as the targets of his critique.

Apparently we agree that all branches of Judaism believe themselves to be the carrier of the true traditions of our forefathers. Rabbi Shafran from his corner of the universe and our more secular minded brethren from theirs.

So long as Rabbi Shafran and his ilk refrain from their indefensible posture of exclusive truth, we can all agree to coexist in peace and harmony. After all there is room for much and varied Tikkun Olam.

As our sages used to… Read more »